When it Comes to Meditation, There’s No Right Way

Social Sciences5 MIN READ

Jacob Young's neuroscience study asks whether one style of meditation impacts the brain differently than another

Jacob Young '20, seen here at the Burmese Vihar Monastery in Bodh Gaya, India, where a Buddhist studies program for Western students has been offered for 40 years. Young stayed here as part of his study-abroad experience, when he conducted fieldwork to collect data for his paper titled "Contrasting Electroencephalography-Derived Entropy and Neural Oscillations With Highly Skilled Meditators."
By Laura MeaderPhotographs by Jacob Young ’20
December 21, 2021

Want to improve your meditation practice? If so, be wary of devices or “experts” telling you there’s only one proper way.

So says Jacob Young ’20, a lifelong meditator skeptical of consumer devices using EEG—electroencephalography—or of any person that informs individuals if they’re meditating “correctly.”

“The whole point of meditation is that you are the only one who can know your mind,” he said. “You don’t need an outside device to examine its contents.”

Young’s curiosity fueled what became a novel, rigorous research project in the field of contemplative neuroscience, which studies how meditation and other self-reflective practices affect the brain. His research earned a distinction few undergraduates achieve: a published paper in an academic journal as the lead author.

“This is a big deal,” said Professor of Psychology Martha Arterberry, one of Young’s advisors and coauthors. In April 2021 the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience published that paper, detailing his study.

The 16-channel, EEG headset that Jacob Young ’20 used in his study to record the neural activity of meditators. Young built the headset himself using a pattern from OpenBCI, an open-source company, and a 3D printer in Colby’s Mule Works Innovation Lab.

Young’s research expanded on previous studies in contemplative neuroscience that focused narrowly on just one meditation technique. He studied six. He wanted to know: does one style of meditation impact the brain differently than another?

His study offered preliminary evidence that it does, at least in terms of the frequency that neurons fire. The results point to the need for researchers to consider multiple practices in future studies.

“Defining meditation practices is not straightforward,” Young said. Practices from different spiritual and secular traditions are often conflated. So popular claims that tout the benefits of practicing meditation “correctly” fail to consider what style someone is practicing.

“It might be too early for consumer-based systems to facilitate practices because we still don’t quite understand how meditation is affecting the brain,” added Arterberry.

Breaking New Ground

“The study was unprecedented student research in many ways,” said Assistant Professor of Biology Josh Martin, Young’s additional advisor and coauthor. “This wasn’t a version of the same experiment previously done. It was a newly imagined way of doing things.”

Drawn initially to artificial intelligence and computer science, Young opted as a sophomore to design an independent major in contemplative neuroscience, something no Colby student had previously explored.

Over the course of two years, Young developed his study design, used open-source resources to build a portable EEG device (with a $2,500 Compagna-Sennett Religious Studies Fellowship), and conducted research in the field, something very hard to do, Arterberry noted. In his senior year, he learned complex statistical methods to analyze his large dataset.

“Nothing was going to stop him,” Arterberry said.

Young designed his study to dovetail with his study abroad experience in India and Nepal. His participants were highly practiced meditators, people with relatively clear neural signatures. It was necessary to study in the field, he said, because of the impracticality of getting them into a lab. Young identified them by emailing meditation centers and, while abroad, through word of mouth; he built trust one conversation at a time, often using a translator.

The sacred Asura Cave near Kathmandu, Nepal, where Guru Rimpoche (Padmasambhava), the person who brought Buddhism to Tibet, was known to meditate. Young traveled to Nepal during his time abroad, meeting experienced meditators and recruiting them as subjects for his contemplative neuroscience study.

Young also had to ensure the integrity of his data. To capture brainwaves accurately with an EEG device, he needed an ultra-quiet environment and a steady electrical source. “Luckily, a number of Buddhist centers let me use their space for my recording,” he said. “They were by nature calm, distraction-free places.” He addressed the electricity issue using a laptop with a large battery.

Young recruited 42 study participants; 28 made the final cut. With sensors placed across their skulls, Young recorded 600 seconds while each person meditated and another 80 while engaged in a mind-wandering activity as a control. Across six different frequencies, he measured two aspects of neural activity: the frequency at which neurons fire and a measure of whole-brain entropy. He amassed a mountain of data.

The study was a lot to juggle: logistically, technologically, and socially. “It’s hard to do these kinds of experiments when you’re in the lab, when things don’t go right or break down,” said Martin. Fieldwork compounds challenges. Young had plenty of his own, including a broken computer in rural Nepal and a day in an Indian hospital with dysentery.

Despite stresses and setbacks, “he remained calm and focused with a clear vision of what was going on,” said Martin. “He’s a personal testament to how the benefits of meditation can help someone achieve their goals.”

Arterberry said the study’s success is a testament to the small liberal arts college environment, “where something like this could happen. Because of his own initiative, he got the people that he needed around him to help him do it.”

A scene from the city of Jaipur in Rajasthan, India

Meanwhile, Young works as a guide and integration coach for Mindbloom, a company facilitating clinician-prescribed psychedelics for people experiencing anxiety and depression. While he’s aware that his Colby study gives him a leg-up in his graduate school applications, the experience engendered a more lasting impression.

“Having met these people, I’ve come to believe that well-being is a skill that can be trained. A lot of them have been through enormous hardship. … Yet, they’ve found their own way to train their minds for not only being happier and more at peace but also to relate to others in a really kind and compassionate way.